Australian bitting expert Anita Marchesani has agreed to help us out with a new series on the subject of bits. This week’s topic: Where did bits come from, anyway?
Much thought and consideration is given to the saddle we ride in, but have you considered your bit just as much? I love horse bits, exploring the different styles available and helping riders choose the right one for them and their horses. My blog series for Horse Nation will be a discussion purely around bits and bitting questions, starting with a short (and hopefully not too dull!) history lesson:
How did the bit evolve to the modern piece of equipment we use today?
Prior to the domestication of the horse, reindeer were used to pull sleds and perhaps they were ridden as well–using leather halters and harness that would be the precursor to equestrian tack. The first “bitting” arrangement for horses following their domestication was more than likely just a noseband, similar to the reindeer halters, but the emphasis on a mouthpiece was quick to evolve–about 3,000 years before the use of saddles became commonplace.
It was probably a short step from the leather or woven grass halters to including a leather thong tied around the lower jaw, across the bars, and was more than likely used with one rein. Riders then moved onto the thong with two reins, quickly giving way to the headpiece and hard bit- either of wood or bone–often supported by a low fitting noseband around 2300 BC. Bronze bits became common place between 1300-1200 BC, though they had been used prior to that in various horse tribes well before that date.
At this stage some experimentation began with the mouthpieces and shanks, with spikes, curves, serrated edges and very long shanks–particularly for chariot horses, where absolute control at speed was vital.
The jointed snaffle appeared almost as soon as bits started being fashioned from metals, though the straight bar never became obsolete and is of course still used today. The Celts of Gaul were the first to introduce the curb bit in 4th century BC and really since then, there has been little significant advance in bit design!
Importantly, the writings of Greek cavalry commander, Xenophon, represent the first serious study into bitting the horse, within the full spectrum of horsemanship. Greek bits were very modern in appearance, with cheekpieces, jointed mouthpieces, rollers on bits for young horses to encourage “pursuing the bit with his tongue”, as well as some monsterous contraptions with spikes and studded rollers. Xenophon always promoted the selection of a softer bit, rather than a harsh one, and encouraged correct training of the horse and rider to improve control and finesse
The Greek cavalry rode without saddle, (and usually without breeches!) hence Xenophon’s early dedicated interest in the bit as an aid to improving the communication between horse and rider.
Xenophon wrote, “It is not the bit, but its use that results in a horse showing it’s pleasure so that it yields to the hand; there is no need for harsh measure; he should rather be coaxed on so that he will go forward most cheerfully in his swift paces.”
The Romans and Celts then took up the use of the curb bit with great popularity, leading to its use in the middle ages by knights in England. In some instance, the shanks were up to 55cm long- the pressure to the lower jaw, poll and palate possible would have been incredibly severe. However, as the knights rode by leg, spur and with the reins in one hand, due to holding shield and sword in battle, it is thought they rode mainly by weight and neck reining rather than direct rein contact. By this stage the saddle was common place, as was the stirrup.
In the 17th century, the studded cavesson and “false rein” became a part of training the horse, in fact the horse was “mouthed” though this noseband, with control being passed gradually onto the curb rein as training progressed. The focus on the curb bit remained up to the 19th and 20th century, until Caprilli’s modern school of cavalry training developed the forward style of riding and insisted on riding in a snaffle- the bit of choice for the large majority of riders today. Though the snaffle is often still seen as the precursor to introducing the curb, many riders never take this step and remain in a snaffle for their entire riding lives.
Next blog–the modern horse bit.
About Anita: Anita Marchesani is the bitting expert behind Bit Bank Australia, a specialist web shop that sells only horse bits and accessories. She is a published author and a regular presenter, including at Equitana Asia Pacific, on her favourite topic of, you guessed it–horse bits! Having lived and worked in the UK as an event groom, she now lives in Perth, Western Australia, with her family of one beagle, one fat pony a gold fish and her wonderful husband.
Top photo credit: Indigenous Horse Society of India